Florida senior defensive back leads young unit by example

Duke Dawson
Florida defensive back Duke Dawson (7) played in 12 games last season and started seven at nickel corner. [File]

Duke Dawson has matured into an All-SEC caliber cornerback during his career at Florida.

But Dawson is not one to forget his small-town roots. A former Dixie County High standout, Dawson spent his high school years in Cross City, a town of 1,710 about 55 miles west of The Swamp.

“From a can of paint,” Dawson said. “That’s what we say back home. You have to get it from the mud. You have to get it from the bottom. It’s tough where I’m at. I really didn’t have no resources, I really didn’t have nothing.”

A fourth-year senior, Dawson said he’s ready to take on the role playing as an outside cover corner at Florida. Dawson began his career as a safety at UF, returning an interception for a touchdown in his first career game against Eastern Michigan, before moving to the nickel corner position during his sophomore and junior seasons. Last season, at the nickel, Dawson returned his second career interception for a TD against Arkansas while finishing the year with 24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one forced fumble.

With starting cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson now in the NFL, Dawson returns as the most experienced corner in the secondary. Dawson was named a first-team All-SEC cornerback in the league’s preseason media poll, while also being named a second-team preseason All-American by CBS Sports, Athlon and AP.

“I can see it,” Dawson said. “But at the end of the day, you need to perform.”

Dawson said he feels like he’s having the best preseason camp of his career.

“The game has slowed down for me,” Dawson said. “Me recognizing what the offense is about to do, it gives me a step on my game. I mean, I make more plays than I made before in camp.”

Florida redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks said Dawson has been the hardest cornerback to throw against in camp.

“He’s just a quick guy, quick hips,” Franks said. “He’s a really good player. It’s really hard to throw against Duke.”

The 5-foot-10, 202-pound Dawson said playing on the outside has presented different challenges than lining up against receivers in the slot. He prepared for the challenge by focusing on strength training during the offseason, which should help him jam receivers at the line of scrimmage in press coverage.

“Being on the inside it’s a lot of fast and quicker guys,” Dawson said. “You really have to be on everything, but on the outside you got more physical guys, which people don’t understand, like, my game is physical, as well.”

Dawson does not consider himself a vocal leader, but has tried to come out of his shell as he’s gotten older. Dawson said his mother, Monique Dawson, has helped in that area.

“She’s a people’s person,” Dawson said. “She’s talkative. She tried to get me to be more talkative. It’s going to help me in the long run with whatever I do in life. Coaches always tell me to help the young guys and be more verbal. That’s what I try to do.”

But Florida coach Jim McElwain said he likes that Dawson leads by example.

“He’s not one of these rah, rah, talker guys,” McElwain said. “He goes out and does it, through his actions. You can tell even these young guys are saying, ‘Oh, now I see how I’m supposed to go about it because of Duke.’ ”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or kevin.brockway@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway’s blog at Gatorsports.com.